Why Do I Hate AEW So Much?

Until about a year ago, the show I most enjoyed hating was The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s HBO opus about a TV news station where the host, Will McAvoy, was the last man with integrity on Earth. I argued for a long time that the show — completely unintentionally — was the funniest on TV due to its rare combination of sanctimony, casual misogyny, and Sorkin’s thinly veiled belief that he was writing the greatest TV show anyone has ever seen, even as it was often impossibly stupid. The joy of watching The Newsroom is seen in its most distilled form in a scene called “Don Tells the Pilot” (on YouTube at least) where two of the characters break the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death while on a plane. The construction of the scene shows Sorkin’s hilarious contempt for “common folk,” who are all portrayed as aimless sheep who would walk into an electric fence if not guided by the heroic journalists who have all the answers. The women in the scene are hysteric idiots or killjoys who need to be calmed by the intelligent men. And the final capper is one reporter’s bizarre reverence for the airplane pilot, who is seen as a heroic figure worthy of hearing the incredible news that nobody else knows.

The Newsroom was a perfect storm of hate-watching: it was smug, it thought it was much smarter than it really was, and when it tried to be intentionally funny it often revealed the writer’s retrograde sense of humor, which in and of itself was ironically amusing. But lately, it has been surpassed by my new favorite show to hate: AEW Dynamite.

When I last wrote about the upstart wrestling promotion, it was over a year ago, when the show was just getting off the ground. I didn’t like the show but was also trying to be open-minded about it. I respected the challenge in starting a new promotion and figured it might just need some time to work out the kinks. It took a few months of Dynamite getting progressively worse to come to a somewhat startling realization: I hate almost everyone on the show and most of the people who like it. While previous critiques were grounded in an attitude of “I hope they succeed, but it’s not for me,” I have moved to actively hoping it fails and the company goes bankrupt. This would be horrible for the wrestlers and the business as a whole, I understand. But the wrestlers are not me and it would make me happy.

The most positive thing to be said about AEW is that it was promoted and marketed brilliantly. The market leader, WWE, spent years driving off viewers and making many of the more hardcore fans resent the company, a trend that continues as childishly whining about their shows remains a staple of YouTube reviews, wrestling commentary sites, and random people on social media. AEW saw an opening in appealing to these sorts of bitter, resentful, probably lonely fans, and it decided to embrace them and make them feel like they were part of an uprising or a movement, even as the company was funded by a billionaire’s son using his dad’s money, which is about the least radical thing I can think of. AEW also mobilized parts of the wrestling media who influence opinions, making a show that directly appeals to their wishes which has led to consistently strong press. Before AEW even put on a show, they had a base of fans and critics who were convinced the company would replenish the barren wrestling fields and finally provide an alternative to the evil WWE.

To make an offensive comparison that will make most people who read this upset, I liken these AEW die-hards to QAnon supporters. At the start, they buy into an idea because it makes them feel good and like they’re part of a movement. Over time, it becomes more and more obvious that the movement is a load of crap and it becomes harder to justify on any level, but all of the people who bought the lie are in too deep and can’t accept reality or it will shatter the entire world they’ve constructed for themselves. So they continue to move the goalposts. Every seemingly conflicting piece of evidence has to be excused; every arrow that points to their views being wrong is ignored. To these people, AEW has to be good, because the alternative is being stuck with the evil WWE again, and also admitting they were wrong, which people don’t like to do.

This rabid, insane nature of the fan base provided some of the entertainment value of AEW before the pandemic removed crowds from TV. I would watch a segment that was obviously, clearly terrible — like, any rational person would see that it was embarrassing to have it on TV — and the fans would be cheering like it was a Beatles concert in 1964. When I watched Dynamite, I felt like I was learning something about human psychology, getting closer to figuring out how events like Jonestown happen. It was fascinating in a way. The same fans who make it known they despise WWE for its goofiness, bad booking, or subpar wrestling would suddenly be enraptured by all of it.

Being a bad show in and of itself is not a crime or something I would care about. But the smugness and bitterness in the AEW fan base is always there beneath the surface; the fans love to talk about how much better the show is than WWE, how “refreshing” it is to have “real wrestling” back, and how great it is to watch wrestlers who have “creative freedom” instead of being shackled by corporate oppression. This starts at the top with Tony Khan, who is a wrestling nerd that is awkwardly deferential to the viewers. Khan is a joke in the world of pro sports, where his teams all suck and he has shown no capability to lead, but these wrestling fans are giving him the validation he has always craved. In return, he gives them the show they want, full of goofy indie nonsense and matches that are purely exhibitions of moves with no selling or logic.

The way I see it, AEW could have been its own thing, but by constantly talking trash at WWE and insisting they were “the good guys,” they invited the comparisons. So I compare them to WWE and see a show that is much worse on almost every level. The one area where AEW has something going for them is that the show does have a little of that “anything can happen” vibe to it compared to the rigid structure of WWE, in part due to the complete unprofessionalism and cluelessness of everyone involved. Other than that, though, my expectation was that AEW would expose weaknesses in WWE, but instead I find myself appreciating WWE more now that I see an inferior company try to equal them.

I used to wonder why WWE didn’t let its wrestlers really go all-out in their matches, instead favoring a somewhat formulaic and safe style of wrestling. When I watch AEW, with its mind-numbing action, non-stop flips and contrived-looking moves, I understand why WWE limits its talents in order to make the moves register and make sense. Matches in AEW rarely have psychology or a story to them; there is never any sense of pacing or “less is more,” which is part of why the show always feels so indulgent. I always thought WWE should give talent more creative freedom and let them be unscripted on the mic. After watching WWE rejects like Miro utilize their newfound “freedom,” I understand why they didn’t have much creative input — because they’re stupid and their ideas suck. I also used to dislike WWE for being so biased towards big guys. It took watching AEW, where I believe I could beat up half the male roster in a real fight, to understand why Vince McMahon pushes who he does. The wrestlers in WWE look like professional wrestlers, not average nerd fans, and that makes a huge difference when it comes to suspending disbelief and being immersed in what’s going on.

The vast discrepancy in talent between the shows cannot be overstated. Almost everyone in WWE looks cool, has a distinct charisma, and knows what they’re doing in the ring. WWE’s roster is probably the most diverse in the history of wrestling; a look at their current champions shows a wide range of performers from different races and backgrounds. And this diversity goes deeper than skin color: the performers in WWE have their own moves, mannerisms, and quirks. When you watch a big WWE show, there is a little something for everyone; there can be a flippy cruiserweight match, two giant guys standing toe-to-toe, a technical mat-based match, etc. AEW’s roster, on the other hand, is the most bland and vanilla collection of largely interchangeable “talent” I’ve ever seen. Leading the charge are The Young Bucks, the self-proclaimed “best tag team in the world,” who are scrawny white guys who could only exist in a pro wrestling world where nobody believed in anything so it became a contest to see who can do the stupidest moves in every match. Nobody in any entertainment medium has made more money while having fewer positive attributes than The Young Bucks. Other highly featured wrestlers like Orange Cassidy, Joey Janela, and Darby Allin rely on doing horrendous comedy or moronic stunts because they are so not believable as fighters. These are guys who simply would not cut it in WWE, but they are able to carve out a space for themselves in the minor leagues of AEW. Which is fine, but if you go to a Toledo Mudhens game, nobody there acts like they’re watching a team that is better than the Dodgers.

The wrestlers who were in WWE and jumped over to AEW like Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, and FTR, have mostly proved that they’re not as good as they thought they were. Jericho has aged rapidly and spends most of his time on the show doing heinous comedy sketches that look like a drunk guy sent in an embarrassing audition to SNL. Moxley is more controversial — I can’t deny that he is very popular and a lot of people like what he is doing in AEW, where he has abandoned wrestling actual matches so he can jump onto barbed wire, swing a baseball bat covered with barbed wire at people, or be in a match where the ropes are exploding barbed wire. I find this kind of “wrestling” ridiculous and silly, and so I’ve come to view Moxley less as a wrestler and more as a stuntman who is good at talking and convincing people that what he’s doing isn’t terrible when it obviously is, which in some ways makes him the perfect representative for AEW. As for FTR, they’re still a proficient tag team in the ring but their storylines on this show are even more nonsensical than what made them quit WWE. They had a feud with The Young Bucks where trying to determine who was the face and who was the heel was like trying to translate a Zodiac killer cypher.

I’m writing this post because I’m enjoying it, which is where most of my fascination with AEW lies now: why is it so fun to hate this company? What does it say about me, and my outlook on wrestling, that one of my current hobbies is trashing them? Are there lessons from this that I could possibly apply to art in other mediums? AEW just hits this sweet spot for me: it is not only very bad, but everyone involved in making it is fully convinced that it is the greatest thing anyone has ever done. This intersection of confidence and incompetence is where prime hate-watching happens. That’s why The Room is so popular, but unfortunately AEW isn’t even close to that level, and for the most part I now just keep up with the show via short clips online when I feel like laughing and being bewildered about what hardcore wrestling fans think is good.

I think AEW is also tapping into my tendency to be a fan of something while disliking a lot of other people who are fans of it, which has been a theme in my life as a nerdier person who doesn’t like nerds much. I land squarely in the coveted 18-49 male demographic that AEW is going after, but I rarely like entertainment that is so obviously aimed at me, and I’ve cringed at AEW’s Rick and Morty tie-ins and the way it has brought nerd culture into wrestling, with guys doing moves from Streetfighter and being inspired by anime. I like entertainment that gives me a different perspective and so have little desire to seriously watch a bunch of nerds make a show for nerds that makes me hate nerds. Of course, WWE also targets young males, but there is more of an attempt to appeal to a wide swath of people, and when shows had fans, the difference between an AEW crowd and a WWE one was stark.

Mostly, I’ve realized that wrestling is my outlet for wanting entertainment that is larger-than-life compared to my increasingly obscure music taste. I like the big stadium shows and the feeling with WWE that I’m watching the best talent on the highest stage. Nobody in AEW touches the likes of Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley, Roman Reigns, Edge, Drew McIntyre, Bianca Belair, Rhea Ripley, Keith Lee, Bobby Lashley, etc, and the production quality and spectacle of WWE is unmatched. AEW could have made up for this gap if it told really emotional, artful stories with strong characters that you could believe in, but to say they’ve fallen short of that is an understatement. Everything in AEW feels goofy and fake, and the show really makes no effort to engage with the audience on an emotional level. Nobody actually hates any of the heels, or really likes any of the faces, in the sense that they want to see them win more than anything. The show only exists to be “good wrestling” to a portion of the fanbase who hates WWE and thinks wrestling is about doing the most moves and doing the coolest stunts. But if none of the moves or stunts actually make the audience feel something, how is that good wrestling?

Daniel Bryan, who is a wrestling genius, once had an exchange on Twitter with author Naomi Klein, where he argued that wrestling is a medium that actually encourages deep empathy in the audience in contrast to its reputation as a redneck spectacle. He knows better than anyone: when Daniel Bryan got red-hot in WWE a few years ago, it was because the audience really cared about him and wanted to see him be champion. And WWE, while it tried to fumble the story numerous times, was able to string the audience along, to make them have real emotions about what they were watching even though it was “fake wrestling.” I don’t believe AEW is capable of telling such a story, because nobody in the company has shown any capacity for storytelling and getting the audience invested at a level deeper than chanting “this is awesome” after someone crashes through a table covered in barbed wire and thumbtacks. While AEW is supposed to be this “revolution” of wrestling, it is really doing the stereotypical version of wrestling that non-fans make fun of. Until they can tell a story with some actual emotional resonance, the only reason for me to watch will be to laugh at it.

Wrestling Without Fans is the Last Entertainment Standing

Part of why wrestling is a somewhat in-demand TV product right now is that it has new content every single week no matter what. There is never an off-season and the whole business has a deeply engrained “the show must go on” mentality — WWE often touts how it has had a new episode every week for the last 20+ years. This is why, even during a global pandemic that has shuttered sporting events across the globe, wrestling keeps on happening in its cockroach-like way. In the last couple weeks, both WWE and AEW ran shows without an audience for the first time, with limited personnel on hand. The results have been weird, to say the least.

Wrestling’s lifeblood is the crowd reactions, and most of my posts have centered on how the art form is so heavily based on manipulating the audience and getting them invested in matches. One of the reasons I watch is for those really heated emotional moments on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s the entire crowd hating Brock Lesnar or rejoicing when he gets beaten. Needless to say, without a live audience, those moments don’t exist. So what’s left?

As it turns out, there have been obvious downsides, but also some surprising revelations from this experiment. To start with the negatives, the matches are tough to get into without a crowd reacting at specific spots. AEW’s first show without fans seemed to solve this issue by having wrestlers serve as a de facto audience, rooting on the good guys or bad guys based on their alignment, which led to a show with much more energy than WWE’s approach that had empty chairs in the background at their Performance Center and a clear apocalyptic vibe. But due to the CDC recommendations on crowd gatherings, that was nixed last night, so now both shows are running with as few people around the ring as possible.

AEW’s matches have suffered less, because they tend to be more focused on athleticism and back-and-forth action than WWE’s, which are typically about advancing a story and engaging the crowd in a battle of good against evil. With so many hours of TV to fill and with not a ton of people on hand, WWE has been using their extensive back catalogue of old pay-per-view matches to fill time and pace the shows a bit, seemingly recognizing that the no-crowd matches weren’t particularly fun to watch. Both shows have tried to find creative ways to mimic a crowd. AEW had a backstage room with wrestlers cheering for others, while WWE has put various people on guest commentary and had them cheering for specific wrestlers and advancing a story. These are decent band-aid attempts given the restrictions, but nothing that really comes close to matching the feeling of a live crowd being into a match.

This hasn’t all been negatives, though. In fact, one part of the show has actually improved. WWE has let loose their best promo people in these weeks and they’ve thrived without having an obnoxious crowd interrupting them or trying to make the show about themselves. As a huge fan of promos, this period has been a goldmine for me: wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Edge, and Becky Lynch have cut some of their better promos, because the quiet setting lends an intimacy and intensity to the proceedings that isn’t there typically. Instead of playing to a crowd, these confrontations are just between the wrestlers, and it makes them feel more like real-world conflicts. I noticed even non-wrestling-fans on Twitter were observing that no-audience wrestling resembled some kind of bizarre stripped-down theater production.

WWE has the advantage of currently building up to¬†WrestleMania, their big stadium spectacle that will now take place in an empty arena. AEW has less of a clear direction (and just doesn’t emphasize promos as much as WWE), so they haven’t been as successful in this regard. I also have felt since the beginning that AEW’s boisterous crowds have covered up a lot of the show’s flaws — when an audience is cheering wildly, it has a psychological effect on many where they convince themselves it’s great, and a lot of fans are so happy for a major league non-WWE show that they cheer for everything.

I really felt this in the final segment of AEW’s last show, which involved Broken Matt Hardy, a ridiculous, campy character that caught on with wrestling fans because of its over-the-top wackiness. Hardy signed with WWE a few years ago, they never “got” the character, so now he’s jumped ship to bring it back and show off his brilliant creative mind. His first promo, with no audience, felt like the worst segment in the history of wrestling to me — it was like watching really bad children’s theater. Without fans going wild for Hardy and cheering for his outlandish character, shouting his catch phrases, the curtain was pulled back and I realized this is an idiotic gimmick that already feels stale. In the moment, I hated this segment more than anything, but I can’t even tell if it’s a fair assessment because of the lack of fans. My guess is a lot of stuff I have loved in wrestling would not seem nearly as good if it had played to an empty arena.

These shows feel like they’re on borrowed time: both have been operating in Florida, which is going to enforce a stay-at-home order, and obviously if a wrestler tests positive for Covid-19 it all likely stops. WWE has recorded a bunch of their shows in advance through Wrestlemania, at which point we will probably enter the first wrestling hiatus in forever. When the wrestling stops, that’s when you know things are going really bad.

The Women’s Elimination Chamber Was The Best Worst Match

One of the personalities you unfortunately become acquainted with when you get way too hardcore into wrestling is Dave Meltzer, who has reported on the industry for years and created The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Meltzer is maybe most known these days for his star ratings of wrestling matches, which started with a 0-5 scale but now has had multiple scale-breaking matches, including a recent AEW match he rated six stars. His ratings feed a concept that has taken hold of the wrestling industry: the idea of a match as an artistic performance that is held up to a critical standard of excellence, and fans now often rate matches themselves based on how “crisp” the “workrate” is. Meltzer’s system in particular favors matches with high athleticism, long run times, dramatic kickouts and false finishes — the recent AEW tag match he gave six stars was basically four wrestlers hitting every move that ever existed for over 30 minutes.

I didn’t like that match a whole lot, and I’ve increasingly become alienated from what the typical wrestling fan perceives as a “great match.” Wrestling is an art form, but I don’t think it should ever overtly resemble art. You should feel like you’re watching people fight, not like you’re watching people put on a great performance. And too many of these highly acclaimed matches are more like Cirque Du Soleil demonstrations, with everyone trying to “steal the show,” but in the process losing the thread of this being a simulated competition that it should look like you’re trying to win. This is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy from Meltzer’s scale — his influence on wrestling has shaped what a generation of wrestlers think “great wrestling” looks like, and they put on matches looking to score high on his star ratings scale rather than to tell a story or make people emotionally invested.

Context is also something I think about a lot in art, and in wrestling it is particularly important. If every match is a “banger” where the competitors trade moves back and forth, kick out of everything, and engage in non-stop frenetic action, it has a numbing effect. Part of what once made these matches great was that they were rare and special, but now you can see an indie-style 20 minute “classic” every week, if not even more often. I’ve felt this in particular watching NXT, where everyone is so highly trained and athletic, but it leads to a sameness in the matches. My exhaustion of this style of wrestling has led to a weird effect where I have started to appreciate matches that just tell a coherent story of reasonable length and don’t engage in any of these modern wrestling tropes. Exhibit A for this happened last Sunday with the women’s Elimination Chamber match.

The chamber is a WWE match type where wrestlers are locked in pods and there is a convoluted rules system that basically leads to them wrestling in this dangerous structure. There is an underlying expectation to these gimmick matches now, that they’re going to be full of exciting action and creative moves. In the chamber match that happened earlier in the night, a wrestler climbed to the top of the cage and did a backflip onto all the other wrestlers, which wowed the crowd. With the women’s chamber match, which main evented a long three-and-a-half hour show, WWE subverted those expectations and essentially put on a match that was intentionally unentertaining and bad — and I loved it.

I realize that sounds weird, so I’ll try to explain. To start with, everyone knew who would win this match — the winner would get a match against this blog’s hero Becky Lynch at WrestleMania, and Becky had already started feuding with Shayna Baszler, the former long-reigning NXT champion. Along with that, the other five women in the match (Asuka, Natalya, Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, Sarah Logan) had all either lost to Becky already or not been portrayed as serious competitors. So there was no drama in the outcome, which led to a disinvested crowd. The way the match played out pissed them off even more: once Shayna got in the match, she just systematically eliminated all the other competitors, and multiple times she cleared the ring and just stood around gloating while waiting for the next victim to come out of their pod. So a large chunk of this main event match was, incredibly, just Shayna Baszler walking around the ring taunting the other competitors while no action occurred. Everyone knowing Shayna would win and then Shayna easily dominating made this match unappealing while also adding a lot to the story, as there was a crushing and depressing inevitability to her victory.

Part of why I loved this match is that it had a verisimilitude to it that you rarely see in wrestling anymore. I remember watching Floyd Mayweather fights, and I would get pissed off that he dominated boxing in such a boring and workmanlike fashion that wasn’t fun to watch. I would be desperate to see a boxer step up and kick his ass, but no one ever could because he was too good. The psychology of this match felt similar: this wasn’t about every wrestler getting to showcase their artistic abilities, but about Baszler, a cage-fighting specialist, just being much better than everyone else and focusing only on winning the match and abusing her competitors rather than being entertaining. Now obviously wrestling should maintain its unique quirks that separate it from just being simulated UFC, but this was the perfect way to establish Baszler as a total killer, as well as a vicious heel who you hate in part because she “ruins” matches like this with her methodical style. This was a match that had a purpose to it that told a more resonant story than “look at the moves these wrestlers can do.”

The cost of this presentation was that WWE put on a main event that most people hated, and not really in the “getting worked” way where they’re upset at a heel but still hooked into the story. It remains to be seen, but I think the benefits of this are worth it: it makes future Shayna matches more compelling, especially her upcoming showdown with Lynch, because she seems unbeatable and is hated by fans for being “boring.” Ideally, that can be paid off with a satisfying moment when Baszler loses, and she’s already set the template in NXT, where both of her title losses were the kind of joyful moments that make me love wrestling. It also creates a context where you don’t know that every single main event is going to be a 30-minute thrill ride, or that every gimmick match is going to have the predictable high spots and excitement. In a sense, this match died so that other matches could live.